The latest draw at the box office is creating a lot of conversation, and I’m not talking about the vampire-werewolf romance pic! Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a hot historical property. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I can only speak about it from a distance based on what I’ve read (and the trailer.) It seems that the filmmakers strove to make the movie as authentic as possible, even down to recreating specific historical sounds. I read that Ben Burtt, sound designer for the movie, recorded the ticking of a watch that Lincoln actually owned and even the creaks made by “Lincoln” pew at St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House in Washington. The movie is partially based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln which examines the Lincoln Presidency. The movie concentrates on the last four months of the Lincoln’s time in office as he was pushing the passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. The movie reviews are glowing and there is a lot of talk of Oscar nominations. So, did they get it right? Is it a portrait of the “real” Lincoln? Is that what really happened? Is the movie true? The truth is, we’ll never really know.
The only way we know anything about history is because of what people have left behind. We’ll only know what happened in the past from the accounts of the people who participated in or witnessed those events and what they chose to record (in diaries, letters, paintings, sketches, photos, songs, stories, and now video) based on their particular perspectives, perceptions, predispositions and prejudices. Every account is an interpretation of what happened. Have you ever been in a car accident? There are as many accounts of the accident as there are people who experienced it or witnessed it! And these accounts can never capture every detail, every nuance, every thought related to these events. As much as we might think it is, history is not about finding the truth. As much as we want to know “what really happened,” the actual past event is gone. It is unknowable.
In November, Dr. Bob Bain, from the University of Michigan spoke to our Teaching American History participants about the difference between History as a Past Event and History as an Account. Stay with me here because this gets a little complicated. To begin to think historically about the past, we must understand that H(ev) (History as a Past Event) can only be understood based on the Residue or Evidence that it leaves behind – primary documents and artifacts. The historian selects, analyzes and organizes this Evidence to answer a particular historical question or problem and then constructs H(ac) History as an Account. We (the public, teachers, students, other historians, and scholars) read and learn the H(ac). Are you still with me? This is Bob’s representation of this process[i]:
Okay, so what’s the big deal? The problem is that we (the public, students, teachers, etc.) tend to think that H(ac) and H(ev) are the same thing. We think that if we “know” the account of the historical event, then we “know” the event itself, what “really” happened. Particularly for students if history is written down (most likely in a classroom textbook), then it must be the truth and if they learn that information (committing it to memory, at least until the test is over) then they “know the truth” of the past. If we want our students to really understand and make critical use of historical knowledge then we of history need to make sure that they know the difference between H(ac) and H(ev).
So, how do we do that? Bob Bain, Sam Wineburg and others writing about historical thinking have discussed such skills as sourcing, contextualization, close reading (Hmmm…where have we heard that before?) and corroboration. Check out the Stanford History Education Group site for one perspective on teaching historical thinking. Since hearing Bob Bain speak, I’m particularly drawn to what he does with his students. He starts his instruction with the above chart as a “cognitive tool” in his classroom to give students a visual of how history works. The emphasis right from the beginning is that history is not just about memorizing facts. He describes his first step in getting students to think historically:
It seems that good readers ask questions, as do skilled historical thinkers! Good readers construct meaning from text just as skilled historical thinkers construct understanding of the past (not “truth”) from the evidence left by past events. So, when you are watching Lincoln in the theater this week, enjoy watching History as an Account and save some popcorn for me!
[i] Dr. Robert B. Bain, “History Teaching IS Literacy Teaching.” Presentation to Teaching American History Grant Meeting, OCM BOCES, Syracuse, NY, November 4, 2012
[ii] Dr. Robert B. Bain, “Into the Breach,” in Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History, eds. Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 338.